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Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls “Positive Songs for Negative People”

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As Frank Turner said in a March 2015 Toronto show, when we last saw the Fisher King at the end of Tape Deck Heart he was alone, surveying his ruined kingdom, and content to stay on his throne and wait for whispers of hope.  But in “The Angel Islington,” the first track on Positive Songs for Negative People, the Fisher King says “Fuck the fishing,” abdicates his crown, and goes forth, ladder in hand, to crawl out of his self-imposed pit of despair.  In a March 2015 interview with Leonie Cooper of NME, Frank said that his sixth studio album is “…a record about pulling yourself up and dusting yourself down, and about having a shit year and getting through it, and resolving not to surrender.”  Luckily he’s got a ladder for us as well.

Positive Songs for Negative People is different from Frank’s previous studio records for several reasons.  First, the way it was recorded.  Towards the end of 2014, he was decidedly unhappy with how the new record was shaping up.  Producers were found and later cut because they didn’t agree with Frank’s vision for the new record.  Desperate to save it, he went toe-to-toe with his label and argued for a new idea – record the album live over a short period of time instead of dragging it out over several months and three or four different studios.  And there was a reason to support his madness.

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Frank and the Sleeping Souls spent a lot of time rehearsing all of the potential new songs and played many of them at gigs before recording the new record.   Both he and the Souls were comfortable with going into the studio, recording live in one or two takes, and releasing the album as recorded.  Frank even found his ideal producer – Butch Walker – but the label told him recording the album that way wasn’t a good idea and even if it was the budget for the new album wouldn’t stretch to bring Walker on board to produce it. Frank reached out to Walker by email anyway.  In a July 2105 interview, again with Leonie Cooper of NME, Frank recalled “He was like, ‘I love your stuff, I would love to work with you, let’s do something.’ I said, ‘How much money is this going to cost?’ and he was like, ‘Whatever you’ve got is what it’s going to cost.”  The album was recorded exactly how he wanted it done over nine days in Walker’s Nashville studio.  The result is a record that sounds just like a Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls concert – rough patches and all.  And it works.

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Second, this is happy Frank Turner.  Most Frank people I know have iPod playlists of his songs called “Songs to Sob By,” “Imma Gonna Kick Some Ass,” or other similar titles.  Coming off the heels of 2013’s Tape Deck Heart, which dealt with the personal fallout from a failed romantic relationship, Positive Songs for Negative People is a call to get up from whatever happened, let it go, and look forward to enjoying what life has in store for you in the future – good or bad.  “Get Better” gets in our faces and yells “We can get better because we’re not dead yet.”  The Next Storm” asks if you want to sit around in your wreckage like Job in his sackcloth and ashes or get up and face what’s next.  “The Opening Act of Spring,” a nice bluegrass/punk frolic, talks about the need to change for the better even if it’s intentionally painful to yourself or unintentionally painful to someone else because “cruel April” leads to May.  Positive Songs is an open invitation to get happy with Frank, and it dares you to accept.  Let’s hope that potential songs not making the initial cut will show up as B-sides or down the road on “The Fourth Three Years.”

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Frank is known for the depth of his lyrics and this album is no exception.  “Demons,” a real belter about real-life demons some of us deal with on a daily basis, tells us to make friends with them because “[y]ou’re not delivering a perfect body to the grave; time is nothing to be saving.”  The punk thrash “Out of Breath” is an exhortation to live life to the fullest – “When you meet death, be out of breath.”  In the beautifully retrospective “The Angel Islington” he tells us he is the “King of a Kingdom of mistakes” who has broken everything but is heading down to the muddy Thames to seek absolution among the saved men from “Broken Piano” and resolve to start over.  “Mittens” describes a stack of old postcards bought from a thrift store as “ten thousand ten-word tragedies” about other people’s lives.  The haunting question “Why didn’t you call?” starts off “Song for Josh,” a homage about a friend lost to suicide.  By all means admire the musicality of Frank and the Souls as the art it is, but dismiss the lyrics at your peril.

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From reading social media sites, the only recurring negative comments I’ve seen about the songs that have been released to-date are from fans expressing disappointment that they have a “pop” feel to them.  While this is a common complaint directed at many bands when new albums come out and depart from an earlier style or sound, I think it’s a natural progression of Frank’s career.  He’s gone from venues the size of a shoe box to arenas and if going a bit more to the pop side brings more people to the fold, then we should trust him and be alright with that.  Look at it this way – the existence of future records is based in large on how previous records do.  Here’s hoping the new fans stick around long enough to discover his back catalog and enjoy it, too, instead of moving on to the next hot pop song that comes along.   The addition of a few mainstream songs to his repertoire should not be an addition to the long list of reasons that people give when accusing Frank of “being a sellout.”  If that’s the case for you, maybe it’s time for you to move along.  There are plenty of bands out there regularly churning out the same old stuff and never growing musically.

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In closing, I will share that my editor and I listened to the advance stream of Positive Songs together when it hit our email.  My comment back to her after listening to it several more times during the day was “It’s beyond good.  It’s…..Christ walking on water and feeding everyone filet mignon topped with crab.”  She told me I had to put this in the review so there it is – but ultimately it’s up to you to decide for yourself what to think.  For me, it hits all the cylinders that need to be hit and that adds up to a solid 10 out of 10.  That’s a rating that I rarely give.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a lot of songs to memorize between now and September.  “God damn, it’s great to be alive.”  See you at the barrier.

Positive Songs for Negative People will be released on August 7th on the Xtra Mile/Polydor(UK)/Interscope label.  You can pre-order here:  http://frank-turner.com/2015/06/15/positive-songs-negative-people/ .

See the lyric video for “Mittens,” the third release from Positive Songs for Negative People, here:  

As I note in the review, “Song for Josh” is about a close friend of Frank’s who committed suicide.  If you or anyone you know is suffering from depression and/or considering suicide as a solution, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline in the US at 1-800-273-8255, or Samaritans at 08457 90 90 90 in the UK or 116 123 in the Republic of Ireland.  http://www.samaritans.org/

All photographs copyright Tara Valois